A Story in Meals

Neha Dalal

CHENGDU, China— I learned two things trying my hands at the ancient practice of tea making atop Mount Mengding, considered a contender for the birthplace of cultivated tea. First—green tea is really, really bitter. Second—I, unlike some of my friends, will never be a master tealeaf picker. Our Chinese guide regaled us with tales of fair maidens who collect the finest leaves with naught but their mouths then left us with instructions to fill the willow baskets—with our hands— around our waist within the hour. I didn’t even pick enough to cover the bottom of the basket before I gave up.

People say food can represent culture. I like food as well as the next human being. However, perhaps I was not gifted with particularly refined taste buds, as I never understood what food could do over any other facet of culture—clothing, celebrations, values. Today though, food offers me a medium to present snapshots of the China I’ve come to love in the last month.

Rewind a bit and we’re on a weekend trip to the Leshan Giant Buddha and E-Mei Mountain. The ongoing Dragon Boat festival has brought crowds that make the trip feel like a pilgrimage. Meal attempt one: the wild—and creepily large—monkeys which inhabit the mountain steal our food to ensure they’re the only ones eating on their territory. Attempt two: we find a dead fish in the sink of a restaurant bathroom, right after we witnessed one of our cooks leave without washing his hands. Attempt three: The Buddhist temples that dot the landscape of such places are strangely peaceful combinations of ancient architecture set against gorgeous mountainous backdrops. Little Tibetan monks-in-training playing. Full-grown monks chanting. Happy Buddha statues with sugary tea offerings. Our meandering speed causes our tour guide to warn us that if we keep stopping to look this much, we won’t make the last bus going out. Challenge accepted. Food, though, is sacrificed in our haste.

Fast-forward again: it’s the 4th of July. It’s pouring and our attempts at American take-out are interesting, to put it delicately. So we decide to explore Chengdu’s bar and club scene. Yeah. Futuristic décor. Brightly colored lights and even more brightly colored drinks. I’m entertained, but also confused.

Originally, I was very concerned about finding vegetarian options, but I’m surprised to find I’m fine with picking out what I want to eat—using my newfound mad chopstick skills—from pots of mysterious substances I would rather not. Sichuan’s amazing spicy cuisine has also destroyed the pickiness I maintain in the US. Flexibility is key, I think.

This time, our mouths are too busy to eat, despite the yummy food. We’re at KTV, China’s karaoke hotspot that everyone is apparently obsessed with. We had imagined a large, packed, sweaty room. Instead, we’re ushered into private room, reminiscent of the inside of a limo. With loud semi-surround sound speakers, free food, and a full repertoire of American songs (and a total cost of like five bucks), KTV is the kind of the best, and needs to be brought to the US.

We’re at a restaurant. This guy keeps staring at us and finally pulls our Chinese friend aside to talk. Apparently, he wants two of us model for him. Definitely a hilarious request, given that he was definitely drawn to us because we look so different from everyone else. The US’s diversity has never hit me more.

Time to explore. Westernized China is both comforting and annoying. The TexMex place decorated in a strange mix of Native American relics and bright pillows is an absolute fail. On the other hand, Kaffe Stugen , a Swedish, wifi-possessing café we chance upon, is absolutely divine. There’s also the store that sells imported American goods. Until now, I never recognized how heavily brands have been imprinted onto my mind. However, realizing how much the chip packets, cereal boxes, candies, toothpastes, soaps, and everything really reek of familiarity, American-ness, trustworthiness and also boredom is a little shocking.

We’re following our normal tradition of just walking around and choosing one of the myriad random street restaurants, and we wind up at a grill. It’s the kind of place where you cook food on a questionably safe personal grill on your table. Sparks are flying—literally—and I definitely get singed. But there are hilarious aprons and the food is delicious; we even scramble eggs and make roast plums.

We’re at a birthday dinner, and I realize how close I’ve gotten with my fellow American travelers and newly-made Chinese friends. Two of them are caught up in a side-conversation, struggling to understand the others’ accents. Playful insults are flying in five languages at one point. Exploding Chinese birthday candles help create a festive environment.

Poking around in a street store to humor my Chinese pudding and milk tea obsession. We stumble upon a copy of Greg Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics.” We are unnerved.

The Internet has died. Again. We attempt to taxi it to a wifi-possessed place and, between our inept Chinese and our driver’s nonexistent English, are only successful because my translator app actually has a translation for Starbucks.

We purchase dirt-cheap food off the street. Visit a hole-in-the-wall dumpling restaurant. Hot Pot. Tea at People’s Park amidst elderly playing Mah Jong. Such moments leave us feeling happiest.

Thus, I raise my glass—which can technically legally be filled with alcohol here—to Chengdu food. Amazing Sichuan friends. An unforgettable China experience.